The Cascade Of Uncertainties Around Climate Change

Oct 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Advocacy, CLIMATE SCIENCE, Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Environment, IPCC, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Opinion, Publication, Vulnerability, Youth Speak

Dr. Anamika BaruaAnamika Barua: When in late 19th century Svate Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, first suggested that increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels could lead to global climate change, it was a radical claim. He was making a prediction about something that could happen in future, not a claim that climate change was already happening. But later in early 1930s, a British Engineer, Guy Stuart Calendar, compiled available global data (mostly from Europe), which suggested that both atmospheric carbon dioxide and average global temperatures were starting to rise.

Following this a number of other scientists also addressed the issue theoretically. But a lot has happened since 1930s. Climate change now is not a radical claim ‘at all’. It is an established scientific fact. Evidences of climate change has been discussed and published in 10,000 peer reviewed scientific papers. But interestingly along with the growing acceptance of climate change as a scientific fact, climate change denial also began from 1980s and it continues till today.

So the question is why inspite of so many evidences of climate change, climate change denial continues to exist?  Why science has not been able to prove it to all that climate change is happening and is no longer a radical claim?

In my last article ‘Himalaya specific climate data – where do we stand?’, ‘I wrote about the existence of huge amount of uncertainty and lack of knowledge regarding the climate variability and changes in the Himalayas, mainly due to limited scientific data. In this article I would like to go a step behind and discuss why despite various practical evidences – glaciers are shrinking, plants and animals are shifting their ranges upwards in terms of both latitude and elevation, extreme weather events are becoming more common – climate change and climate change science are still being denied? This whole issue of climate change denial has been discussed by Washington and Cook in their book ‘Climate change Denial’. Taking reference from the book I have made an attempt to very briefly discuss a few points on why climate change science is still being denied.

First of all we need to understand what is ‘science’? As most of you would know, the word science derives from the Latin, scientia, for knowledge.  Various definitions of science have been given by different scientists (Chalmers 1976; Bronowski 1978; Medawar 1984) and thus based on all these definitions Science is seen as an organized, proven, highly integrated form of knowledge that can answer questions and give explanations and predictions.

Although science has been said to be ‘proven knowledge’ but science doesn’t prove anything. As stated by Washington & Cook 2010, it finds the most likely theory to fit the observations. Sometimes things are so likely – or probable- that we call them facts, asthe sun will rise tomorrow’. Also it is very common in science to accept that something is ‘true’ or ‘well established’ if there is less than 5% chance of it being wrong. In fact Hulme 2009, pointed out that good science always speaks with a ‘conditional’ voice. This is true for climate science too. Scientific knowledge about climate change will always be incomplete (even if long term data is made available) and it will always be uncertain to a certain degree.

Hence we hear IPCC quoting that there is 90% chance that recent climate trends are caused by anthropogenic factors.  For scientists to make such a strong statement, it reflects their genuine expression of concern. No one can be 100% sure about everything in any field of science and this applies to climate change science too. There are a lot of things that climate scientist have well understood – basics of climate change – but less certain about a few things – what will be the level of water scarcity in a warmer world. For things which are less certain scientists continue to look for explanation. But the most important thing to recognize here is that poorly understood aspects of climate change do not invalidate the well understood aspect of climate science. This is what the climate change deniers fail to understand.

There is another point of view on climate change denial. It is human tendency to resist bad news, the ‘fear’ to accept that our current way of life is unsustainable, that there is a ‘limit to growth’. This means that we cannot grow forever and so certain restrictions such as cap and trade, carbon tax etc are necessary to limit economic growth. This obliviously is not good news as it will lead to loss of personal freedom.

A number of times, in many discussions I have come across a few questions like ‘Is poverty not a bigger issue than Climate change?’ Why everything is now discussed with reference to climate change?’ Climate has been always changing, so why such a big concern now?’ I do try to answer these questions but at the same time I also feel that these questions will not be asked if one first accepts that climate is changing and is changing much faster than its natural rate.

So the question that needs to be asked is ‘while there is very strong evidence of human induced climate change, should we wait for absolute proof?’ Or should we take precautionary action before the absolute proof is available?

But the concern here is, while we wait for absolute proof, it may be too late to take action to halt climate change.

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About Author: Dr. Anamika Barua wrote this article for Climate Himalaya’s Youth Speak column. Anamika is Assistant Professor of Ecological Economics at IIT Guwahati (India)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya group.


Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>

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3 Comments to “The Cascade Of Uncertainties Around Climate Change”

  1. Pabitra says:

    Interesting read! Thanks. The actions to halt Climate Change, in many ways, are linked to economics. What tools other than cap and trade or carbon tax, do you think are available for us to incentivize those actions? I would look forward to your insights in the subsequent posts.

  2. Aishwarya says:

    Hello Dr.Anamika,

    Your questions are timely. Its indeed true that despite numerous publications on Climate Change (CC), the skepticism lingers about this issue. The major reason I would point is that ‘the results which reinforce Climate change are published in the language of scientists’. Publications are welcome, but to convey the message to the common man, an elegant and simpler language can only prove fruitful. In this note, I thought it would be good to refer an article which I recently read – “Communicating the science of Climate Change”, by Richard C.J.Somerville and Susan Joy Hassel. I believe this article is available in the ‘Physics Today’magazine.

    Thank you for the write-up!

  3. Rajendra P Gurung says:

    Another argument I have heard is that despite extreme events in the earth’s history that have had a bearing on climate like the ice age, severe volcanic eruptions etc, nature has found a way to stabilise, so they say the present global warming and excessive production of greenhouse gases is something nature will find a a way around too.

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